Townshend looks forward while looking back
Pete Townshend is a rock ‘n’ roll legend. The Who’s main songwriter practically invented the power chord, the rock opera and destroying instruments on stage. He almost singlehandedly brought the synthesizer to popular music and had a impact on every musician that has come after him. Not to mention he’s written dozens of songs that have not only stood the test of time, ‘Who Are You’, ‘Baba O’Reilly’, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, but have gotten better and more poignant with age. The 67 year old rocker recently released his memoir ‘Who I Am’ via Harper Collins to critical acclaim, and is currently out on the road with The Who touring their groundbreaking record Quadrophenia. MSN caught up with Pete over the phone from New York to discuss his ambitious new project Floss, songwriting, Quadrophenia, his book and of course, his epic life and career.
What did you realize about yourself and what did you learn about the band after putting the thoughts down on paper?
I think that the one main thing was right at the very, very end and was just sort of being amazed that we've lasted as long as we have and that Roger [Daltrey] and I are still working together today. I wouldn't say that that was the happiest and most serene relationship that I've got in my life but you know we do work together very, very well and very efficiently. It's kind of amazing. But the main revelation was that I appear to be happy and that that's something that I never set out to want for myself. I always thought that it was a sort of silly kind of an American idea that you had to be happy. I was an arrogant little sod when I was nineteen years old. I was talking about writing a book when I was twenty, and what I was going to write about was this unique view that I felt I had of what was changing in pop music and how it would continue to change. Apart from the fact that I think pop music has probably stopped a little bit short of high art, I think I was right in most cases. When you look at somebody like Lady GaGa, on the one hand she could be an extreme, vacuous, empty, shallow, money making pop icon. On the other hand she could be much more serious. It's difficult to tell where things have gone but I look back and I just think I was right about a lot of things but boy, when I was wrong about something I was really, really wrong. [laughs]
What were you wrong about?
I'm talking about where I made my life choices. I think I had an opportunity to say, "no" more often than I did. It's very strange being a band because you're kind of in a democracy, this mini-democracy. Three guys saying, "I want to go on tour" and one guy says, "I don't want to go on tour", and you go on tour or you leave the band. Many occasions in my life I would say to my wife, Karen, "I don't want to go" and she would say, "well if you don't want to go don't f***ing go", and I would say, "well, I have to go", and she would say, "well why do you have to go?" and I would say, "well, because, because, because..." It was very rarely about the fact that I needed the money, because we lived very, very modestly in those early days. So, I think that's what I mean by choices and what I got wrong and right.
You had a lot of mouths to feed. The Who had a crew and a team of people that depended on the band going out on the road and selling records.
Yeah. By the latter stages of The Who, by the late 60s early 70s we had quite a team around us and, of course, by the 80s we had a massive team. We had one of the biggest crews in the business and they were fantastic. They enabled us to do all kinds of things that we otherwise couldn't do and the only band that had a comparatively "elegant" crew set up, was Pink Floyd with their company Britannia Row. But we set the standard I think.
Roger Waters to this day still tours with the surround sound PInk Floyd employed during their shows. With The Who touring Quadrophenia at the moment, have you found a way to bring the quadraphonic sound into these shows that you couldn't do back in the 70s?
No, no we haven't. In fact I haven't had anything to do with this production creatively. I put the book to bed the very day before I got on a plane to go back from where I was working in France with my editor, to go to London to perform at the Olympics with The Who. And that was in August last year, and in September I started to do publicity and pre-publicity about the book, after a short break. So, I didn't have any time. This tour started in November last year, so I had to leave it entirely to Roger. I crossed my fingers. He flew a few ideas past me for what he had planned and they were very, very audacious, and different, and he didn't want to refer to the story at all, he just wanted the songs to line-up. So, as I said, I crossed my fingers and then we went into rehearsal in Miami, and I saw what he was doing for the first time and the first couple of shows in Florida the crowds loved what was going on on the stage. The band sounded great. Roger even decided who was going to perform in the band and what size the band was going to be. So, I didn't have a lot to do with it. [Laughs]
But you're having fun?
I never have fun, not performing. I'm good at it, but it's not where I look to have fun. I may be a little bit grouchy about it but no. It's certainly fulfilling. Not what I would chose to do for a living really, go on the road with a rock band, but there you go. [laughs] There is a fundamental realization in the book which is that I think I would have been much happier as a kind of Brian Eno. He did the same art school course that I did, he did it ten years later than I did but he did the same course. So there's this sense that he's actually had a more interesting and intriguing, and more art school oriented life. So, I think that sometimes when I come across as somebody who is ungrateful or talks to much or thinks to much, I can only point back to those art school years and just say that's really where the seed was planted. On the other hand, some of those guys that taught me at college think of The Who as a kind of installation if you like, [and] achieved a lot of things that they were trying to drum into me.
How have computers changed the way you work on music? ProTools would have certainly changed the way the older records would have sounded.
I think ProTools has made it easier to write music for movies, I know that for sure. When I worked on the Tommy soundtrack it was nightmarish without computers. To make all the subtle changes that you have to make along the way because the edited film, I spoke about that in the book, how difficult it was and how I could be off working on movies ever again. Then I did music for a film about my friend, it's a short documentary film about my friend, Peter Blake, the painter, the other day and I realized that it's a piece of cake now. It's just really easy to do with computers. Tommy would have probably been easier with computers but I don't know that we would've had the [same result], because I use pretty much the same technique to write and perform, that I ever did. For example, when I turn to music software to create new sounds, part of it is creative, but part of it is also discovery, research, experimentation, and what musicians call ‘noodling’. Where you just kind of wander around trying to find something that inspires you. Of course, that's what I did a lot of when I first got my first synthesizers and first elaborate home theatre organs and things like that, that I used pretty much the way Garth Hudson did in The Band, to create colour, but I used them as a composer too. The digital technology of today is also...there's an illusion. Which is that you can pick up your phone and make a recording but you also need some other stuff, and unfortunately not much of that has been digitized. The other day, this is true, the last time I was here in New York, from where I'm speaking to you now, I realized that one of my suitcases weighed about a ton. It's because there were two microphone stands in it. One to hold the microphone for my guitar and the other to hold the microphone that would record my voice and I took them out and of course they did weigh a ton, so I went online and I tried to find a much lighter weight music stand. I managed to find one that was about two-thirds of the weight. It's that stuff. There's your phone but now what do you stand it on? And where do you sing and what do you play into? And if there happens to be a hammond organ then, well, you still need a f***ing truck.
Why are you traveling with mic stands in your suitcase are you working on new material?
I always carry, if I can, a recording rig, a small recording rig with me, yeah.
And this is for the ambitious rock opera project, Floss?
Well no, not only for that. I am working on Floss, but I've already done a lot of the work on Floss and the only decision I have to make now on Floss is how I'm going to deliver it. In fact, when I first conceived of it, I thought of it as an open air concept and then I realized that that doesn't take me into a level of investment that will probably be close to a movie and I'm not sure that I want to do that right now. So I'm thinking of ways to present it and it would be nice to be able to do a double, triple, quadruple album, but I can't see that happening so we shall see. But my recording rig that I have with me, I've got two guitars, a keyboard, a screen, a laptop, you know the best bit of the whole deal though is I've got a folding picnic table. I think somewhere in the book it talks about one of the most important things for the creative process is to have a nice empty table. If you take a big empty table and a pencil and put a blank sheet of paper on it, it's not just where you begin, it's kind of where you end as well. It's a really extraordinary thing to do. You start to see very clearly what's in your head. There are things that you see when, you see in movies, old movies of guys rolling up the paper and throwing it into a bin and you know that they are in trouble because there's lots of paper all over the room. It looks like that, it's kind of just an empty sheet. But a nice clean table and on the last leg of the tour I had three picnic tables. [Laughs] So I could create a kind of a "U" shape, it felt like a proper little studio.
Were you a pen and paper songwriter or were you a typewriter songwriter? Before we had computers.
I did both. I tend to think a little bit differently. I tend to be a little bit more storming on a typewriter. I tend to just sort of throw the ideas down but then I edit on paper afterwards. There's always a point at which there's an editing process. If you write lyrics before you've got music in your head there's always a chance that you will have to refine the lyric to fit the music later. If you just sit with a guitar and start to sing and play then of course there is no paper at all, you just stick a recorder in front of you and you tape what you've done and then you might put it down on paper later on so, yeah, I've worked all three ways. The other arm of my creative process is where I become a little bit more orderly, when I start to work with structured music, which is much more like conventional composition. I suppose the most famous stuff is the stuff in Quadrophenia.
You wrote in the book that it took two months to mix Quadrophenia. When a record is so vast and epic, how do you know when a project like that is finished, when it can no longer be tweaked?
I’ve had so many musicians say to me, "I write, and I create, and I don't seem to get anywhere." Or, "I've just done a bunch of music and I just know that nobody is ever going to hear it." Or alternatively, somebody will say, "I'm doing loads and loads of shows and people love what I do but I can't get a record deal." I think there's a finishing line. We know where we start the creative process but there's a finishing line and I think every artist has to decide where that finishing line is. I kind of lean into using Lady GaGa as an example for everything at the moment because I think she's just done everything so far across the board. But, there was a time when she was a kind of Carol King. The way she used to sit in an office and write songs which other people used to sing. She could play the piano and she could sing, and she would make demos and sometimes she would write with other people. Well, the finishing line then would have been that demo and then her job was done. At some point in her life she decided there was going to be another finishing line. That she was gonna be this huge superstar and challenge every conception of what we felt that female performers should do in fashion, in sexuality, in work, the degree of work we would do and relationships and everything. So obviously art is finishing things. It ain't art until somebody can look at it or listen to it and say, "I like it" or, "I don't like it." But you have to decide where that line is going to be drawn. Sometimes I'm quite content just to do the demo and think one day somebody will find this and dig it up and they might like it or they might not. I might be dead and gone by then. On the other hand, there are other things that I just feel that I must stand beside, that have to be finished. So, the decision is not when something is finished, but where that line is going to be, and then you know whether you've reached it or not. So, the problem that I have with Floss at the moment is that I haven't decided where that finishing line is going to be. [Laughs] It would be easier back in the 1970s and The Who were a touring band, I'd just kind of go, "Oh, well this will be a Who album, I'll do it as a bunch of Who songs and then we'll drag it around the world and any bits of it that nobody understands I'll do an interview with Rolling Stone magazine and explain. [Laughs] But things are not like that now.
Other than Floss, what's your next finishing line?
Well I think that I've got two or three projects happening. We're still on tour. We have five shows left to do, all in the North East USA. In the UK we've now committed to a tour which I'm very happy about because Quadrophenia is a quintessentially British piece. And very, very gratified that we put up, I think, twelve shows, including two at the O2 arena, where we've never played and the whole tour has sold out in a heart beat, so I'm very pleased about that. Play a couple of shows in Europe; Amsterdam, Paris, and then we're doing a charity show but that doesn't finish until July. So, I still feel that I'm in a harness as it were, but my partner Rachel [Fuller] who I met first when I tried to hire her as an orchestrator, and then got kind of misdirected into falling in love, has picked up a commission I offered her way back in 1996 when we first met, which was to orchestrate Quadrophenia. She's working on those orchestrations now and there is hope that that might be something that would, further down the line, happen in the subscriptions seasons of major orchestras around the world, it's really fabulous writing. She's really brilliant and so I'm supporting her in that. Des McAnuff is a Torontonian as you probably know, he's still the Director Emeritus at Stratford, he's putting Tommy up and it's in rehearsal. The Broadway Tommy that he and I did together, pretty much in its original form with some minor changes at Stratford, that's going into rehearsal at the end of March, that runs until September. And the other thing that I'm looking at is of course Floss and as we speak I would say I'm starting to get a sense of how that might go. I don't want to say too much but I'm starting to get a sense. It's interesting to think about creative work when you're actually on the road performing because you see a very direct line between what you say and do as a performer on the stage and the way that people response and how differently they respond. We played in Hamilton last night and Ontario, particularly Toronto, has always been a hugely important audience for The Who and a place, of a feeling of great roots and connection. I don't wanna be derogatory, it was a great show, and they were a great audience. It's just that when I was looking at them I found myself thinking [laughs] while we're in the middle of some of the more subtle songs on Quadrophenia, I wonder whether they really want to attune to debate the issues that I want to visit in Floss. Which are about the anxiety we all feel about the future. Whether this is something that they care about, I'm sure that they do on behalf of their kids, or their grandchildren, but I wonder whether they feel impotent, or whether they look to me, Pete Townshend, as being somebody who can give them temporary respite from having to worry about that stuff, do you know what I mean? Rather than, "Oh my god, here he comes again with one of his messages of gloom and doom." [Laughs] I'm 68 in May. It's not that I certainly have to get very, very serious but I think I owe it to myself to try to continue to do work that goes into different territory. I think that one of the things that rock has failed to do is go into serious territory where it looks directly at the deeper frustrations and fears that we all carry on a daily basis today. It seems to me that what we do is we turn it into a bit of a joke. Sometimes you end up with Marilyn Manson or something, not that there's anything wrong with him, but you end up in a place where the darkness becomes like a kind of goth-horror thing. Whereas, what we're really talking about here is that today we're worried about our families and our families futures. This is in a climate where the family, the idea of family, certainly in the music business has become, well in my life, subordinate to the idea of neighbourhood. In other words, that when a hurricane hits, or there is some national disaster, or 9-11 or an international disaster, will Iran get the nuclear bomb or not? All of those issues, we become polarized and we forget that we have the power to change the way that we live on a daily basis in our immediate neighbourhood. This reminds me of the way that I grew up. I grew up, between the ages of 8 and 14, like every other kid my age, afraid that Russia was going to drop a bomb on us. And it shaped my life. Hopefully, eventually, in a good way because it brought forth this new wing of pop music. [Bob] Dylan was the guy that had the guts to kind of shout it out loud in ‘Masters of War’ which was just that "this is sh*t." Not because you play with your guns and your toys but because we fear to bring children into the world. I think we're back there again, where people would think twice. Whoever designed the human being was very, very smart, you know, get stoned, get drunk, have sex, forget everything, and then a baby will be on the way because if we f***ing thought about it for fifteen seconds, we'd be much, much, much more cautious. I think it's a very difficult time to think about the future. So, anyway, what I wanted to do was produce a piece of work that attends to that but also offers hope and redemption maybe? I was watching Synecdoche, New York, that Charlie Kaufman film. The guy who's a director who ends up directing his own life and finally directs his own death. I just thought I wonder what people make of this? It's a little bit of everything, but it's certainly deep. Therefore, what I found in it was that I found humour, compassion, love, tenderness, but also a real sense of understanding of how some people do become very, very frightened. Throughout the whole film this guy is worried about dying and his health is not very good and his wife leaves him, and various things happen to him but it's all very real and yet in his head there's this other story going on. I think it's that other story that we can only attend to artistically. Getting back to hopefully in a more positive sense. If I'm on the stage and we're doing ‘5:15’ which is a song about a young kid, gets on a train, takes loads of drugs, and goes to Brighton in order to pursue his dream, and there's an opportunity for a guitar solo. So, I walk to the front of the stage and I start to play the guitar as prettily as I possibly can and then I start to bang at it, and then I start to swing my arm like a maniac, and then I start to bang the guitar on my knee, and then I start to crash at it, and then I start to machine gun the people in the front of the stage, then I start to play the guitar very, very, very badly indeed. Lots of bum notes. Suddenly the crowd grow mad. You know what they like about it is that sense that there is no answer. [Laughs] There just is no answer. There's nowhere to go from here except into that place, and often I end that show with both arms beside myself feeling completely whacked out and just walk back and go back to my fuzz box and push a button and continue to play along with Roger Daltrey. It's interesting, so what I find myself thinking is that function that I have when I'm on the stage is something that I've always felt is what I want to attend to when I write songs and when I write music. The chance to walk right up to the edge and just say, how much further can we go?
Talking about being on stage, how different is it for you since John [Entwistle]'s passing. It’s been a while since Keith [Moon]’s obviously, but do you ever get lost in a song on stage and feel their presence?
Well Roger has gone further than that. He's got a movie of them playing so, what brings on that outburst of mine in ‘5:15’ is the fact that it follows a very long very complex very flashy bass solo from John Entwistle. Which I don't have to top and in the end, because I'm not as good a musician as John, usually when I end flinging my arm around like a lunatic and it’s practically coming out of its socket, I just look at the audience and I point at my chest and I say, "Listen, I am alive." And that's as good as it gets. But yeah they're both there. Roger has introduced John in that form which people love and he does this bass solo and it is very, very extraordinary and it always was when he did it. But also in ‘Bell Boy’ he introduces Keith as the Bell Boy and it's very, very endearing, moving. So, yeah, we feel them because they are there. I think that Roger and I today do feel very different. The way that we work together, and the way that we operate together, and the ground that we cover together, it does feel very different. Being in a band is like a democracy and when there's just two of you it's tricky to run a democracy. There's no casting vote.
You’ve said before going out on this tour that it's still a learning process to play to support Roger's vocals. Something you’ve found that’s new to you. Now that you're almost through this leg, what's it been like?
It's been really intriguing and fulfilling. I supposed what I've done is, not only crossed my fingers on the visual presentation which it turns out I really didn't need to do because people love it, so, it's obviously working very well. I can't see it very well from where I am but I can feel that it works. I've always felt that I had to play my part on the stage. Roger is the singer, he's the front man, I have my moments. I come in sideways and have my moments but most of the time I'm actually just playing guitar and trying to keep the band together and to add colour and an authenticity to the sound and the music and I'm really f***ing good at that. There's no point beating around the bush, I'm good at it and it's fulfilling to do it because I can. On stage in Hamilton, Roger had one song where his sound went to pieces. I think his in-ear monitors went off and he got a bit down and I was in the middle of playing a guitar solo and I went over to him and I grinned and I laughed and he finally grinned and laughed back and I thought, you know, that's not something that I would ever have thought of when I was a younger man. I would have thought well f**k him, let him drown. [Laughs] Now I kind of want him to be okay and I want to be there to support him. I'm not happy in the role of accompanist to anybody at all. You know, I don't mind accompanying myself but I've got so spoiled for years of playing my own music but this is okay. This is better than okay, this is good, I'm doing a good job, and Roger is doing a good job, and I don't think I've ever seen Roger happier. But then again, maybe back in 1964 if we'd given him absolute and total control he would have been happy back then too. He does have absolute control of what's on the stage at the moment and it's working very well, so it's good.
In your book you say that The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was inconclusive when you compared it to The Who Sell Out being the same but didn’t go into depth. Why do you feel it to be inconclusive?
Because it was meant to be so much more. I think it ran out of steam. I think Magical Mystery Tour sort of signaled really, the end of wild, audacious, creative years of The Beatles, I think that's what I meant. I love it too, I love it too. Of course it's got, hasn't it got, ‘Strawberry Fields’ on it? It was when the studio techniques jumped up but I think it was the beginning of a polarization long before Yoko [Ono] came on the scene or maybe not long before but around the time perhaps when John [Lennon] and Paul [McCartney] became slightly polarized. Somehow the unifying presence of George Martin, which was a very sober, traditional presence, a kind of a school masterly, avuncular presence, was absent. It felt to me like half an album and exactly the same way that The Who Sell Out felt like half an album. It felt to me like a great idea that needed more time. I'm sure The Beatles had exactly the same kind of issues that we had. I'm sure there was somebody behind them saying, "You know we need this album next f***ing week." This impression that we have that they were given endless amounts of time and money to do whatever they want is just totally wrong. We were on the plane the other day and somebody who knew George Harrison very well remembered a conversation that they had with him about working for him as a gardener in his house and saying, “listen, I want you to pay me more money, and I want to spend more money on plants” and George said, "Don't buy into the dream. When The Beatles split up I had this house, a couple of cars, and you know, probably about a hundred thousand quid in the bank.” You'd think "F***! I thought that they were billionaires!” But they weren't. Their royalty rate was very, very low and although Lennon and McCartney of course made their fortunes from publishing, from having written all the songs. George wrote good songs but he didn't write many for The Beatles. With Magical Mystery Tour, I felt that that album was heading somewhere and it wasn't just as a film, it was going somewhere. It indicated something, there was a mood in London at the time I remember that kind of theatre-of-the-absurd that it looked at. Which kind of got lost in comedy and silliness and kind of like a revisit to the days of A Hard Day's Night. The “we are a silly pop group and we have lots of fun”, it felt to me that there was more to it. Isn't Magical Mystery Tour, was it not a precursor to the idea of the Rock 'n' Roll Circus? it was, wasn't it? That idea of going on the journey, through unknown places and familiar places changing, the idea of the English Magical Mystery Tour was that you would get on a bus and it would take you on this mystery tour [laughs] and you wouldn't know where you were going.
Well Janis [Joplin], The Band and The Grateful Dead would have done that shortly after with Festival Express. Taking a train through the States and basically doing the Rock 'n' Roll circus. On the road, stopping in places, setting up a stage, playing, back on the train, out you go.
F**k. I didn't know that, that's so great. I just think of her as a complete washout. I got to know her a little bit in LA and I used to drink a lot, but f**k, she used to drink! She used to drink Southern Comfort straight out of the bottle. In fact, you know I can remember saying to her, "Would I be able to do that with brandy?" [Laughs] And she said, "Yeah, sure give it a try!" Anyway, I ended up drinking brandy straight out of the bottle. She was adorable, absolutely adorable. One side of her face, her complexion, was perfect. She looked like somebody that had thrown acid at her. One side of her face she was a pretty, beautiful, lovely girl and on the other side she had looked like somebody that had come up off the street. Her face had been ravaged by something, maybe chicken pox when she was a little kid or something, but she was such a great singer and such a fun girl to be around. I just thought that she kind of got lost in the teenage wasteland, and it's great to hear that they did that [tour]. Something that we always wanted to do.
Speaking of Teenage Wasteland, it’s one of those legendary misnamed song titles. Why did you call the song ‘Baba O’Reilly’ and not Teenage Wasteland?
Because there was another song called "Teenage Wasteland." It was in the assembled double album of demos with Glyn John. The refrain in Baba O'Riley, "It's only teenage wasteland," was a refrain borrowed from another song that was entirely about living in a teenage wasteland.
Five quick questions, one word answers.
Road or studio?
Lennon or McCartney?
When you hear a song what usually hits you first lyrics, melody, or rhythm?
Song you've written that you're most proud of?
I Can See For Miles.
And in one word, Pete Townshend.
Pete Townshend’s Who I Am is out on bookshelves and virtual bookshelves everywhere now.